Sunday, November 15, 2015

Losing Our Innocence

Image by Reinhardt Sobye

May I speak to you in the name of the one, holy, and living God.  Amen.

Do you remember when you lost your sense of innocence?  We often think of the loss of innocence as a marker of the transition from childhood to adulthood, a move from naivet√© to sophistication and, too frequently, cynicism.  Often that loss of innocence involves an encounter with suffering and loss or, even, what we could only describe as evil. 

I’ve been watching my son struggling with this transition.  One of his senior year electives is a course on World Affairs, focusing on critical engagement with current events.  For his first paper in the class, Nehemiah chose to research human trafficking.  Now, Nehemiah is a pretty pollyanish kind of guy – he doesn’t like to acknowledge bad news.  So, it has been a real challenge for him to read books like David Batstone’s Not for Sale and try to make sense of a world that includes boy soldiers in Uganda, girl sex slaves in Bangkok, and slave laborers in Florida.  At one point he said to me, “Pop, I can only read a little bit of this at a time.”  “Then just read a little bit at a time,” I said.  “And keep dancing.”

The trick in navigating this transition is to lose one’s sense of innocence without losing one’s sense of wonder.  Can we hold our awareness of suffering within a larger awareness of joy?  What sustains our wonder so that we can respond with compassion rather than despair?   The loss of innocence is not so much about moving from childhood into adulthood, as it is about letting go of what is superficial and transient, and falling into a deeper, more abiding trust in God.

In that sense, “the loss of innocence” isn’t a one-time event.  It is an ongoing process of moving through suffering and loss to new life.  And sometimes, when it encompasses an entire community – such as Beirut and Paris this weekend – it can feel like the end of the world.[1] 

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus urges his disciples not to be too fascinated by the great Temple in Jerusalem.  It isn’t going to last.  This must have come as quite a shock to them.  These country bumpkins from Galilee, goggle-eyed in the big city, could not help but be impressed by the grandeur and solidity of this edifice to sacred sacrifice.  The Temple was a combination of divine abode, national bank, and center of political power. 

The fact that the Temple was indeed razed to the ground by Roman armies in the year 70 –  a fact well known by the earliest hearers of Mark’s Gospel, many of whom were probably refugees from the disaster – only underscores the urgency of Jesus’ words.  For Jews of Jesus’ generation, the destruction of the Temple really was the end of the world.  It is hard for us to imagine just how significant the destruction of Jerusalem was for them, tantamount to Washington, D.C. – including the White House, the National Cathedral, and the Federal Reserve Bank – being blown apart all at once. 

Mark’s Gospel is addressed to a traumatized community.  Everything they knew, everything they thought was stable and dependable, had been shattered.  And in the midst of the end of the world, we hear the voice of Jesus saying, “The Temple will not last.  Civilizations, nations, come and go.  These things are transient.  Don’t be fascinated by them.  They are not worthy of your ultimate trust.  You need to build your life on a much more enduring foundation.”[2]

It is so easy to be mesmerized by Temples built on coercive power, and even easier to become fascinated by the destructive power that brings them down.  Jesus tells us not to pay too much attention to any of that.  The wars and rumors of wars and disasters that fill the headlines are the least interesting part of the story.  They are just the birth pangs of a new beginning.

The traumatized refugees listening to Jesus’ words understood what he is talking about. They lived in a world in which 70% of women who lived past childhood died while giving birth or due to related complications.  They knew suffering and loss, but they also knew that it can be the harbinger of new life. The coming of birth pangs signals that the new is coming: someone is about to be born, and in the joy of that birth we are all reborn. 

Life wants to live.  It is wondrous.  God is the God of life, and it is our trust in the gift of life, and the love that animates this gift, that sustains us through the birth pangs. 

Last weekend, Sarah Montoya brought her four-month old daughter to the parish retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch.  She was passed around from person to person like a sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace.  Holding Walden Mae was, for me, to be absolutely absorbed by the wonder and joy of life, providing an unshakable touchstone of God’s gracious and loving desire for all of creation.  It may be the end of the world, but as Michael Stipe sang, I felt fine.[3]

Jesus is not oblivious to suffering and loss.  He is resolutely and actively opposed to the evil powers of every age.  But Jesus does not allow himself to become fascinated by those powers.  He is fully united with the creative power of God’s love, completely absorbed with its life-giving vitality.  He entrusts himself unreservedly to the the flow of this love, rather than to the transient edifices of coercive power in which we too often place our trust.  He doesn’t pay any attention to them.  He moves through the birth-pangs of the New Creation, through Holy Week and Good Friday to the Empty Tomb.  Life wants to live.

The endlessly creative ways in which life continually bursts through the shattered remnants of our Temples, Jesus names “the realm of God.”  It is the space of freedom and joy in which love rules.  It is all around us.  We’re just too focused on trying to hold up the wobbly pillars of our Temples, too afraid of the end of the world, to welcome the new life that is being born. 

Jesus described this kingdom or realm of God with many evocative metaphors:  the leaven that makes the bread rise, an invasive weed that takes over the garden, a precious pearl hidden in the field.  I would like to suggest another image: the realm of God is like a fungus. 

When we think of fungi, we often picture mushrooms.  But the mushroom is merely the fruit of the mycelium, an underground network of rootlike fibers that can stretch for miles.  The mycelia transmit information across their huge networks using the same chemical neurotransmitters found in our brains.  They breath in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  In fact, the largest known organism in the world is a mycelial mat or network in eastern Oregon that covers 2,200 acres and is more than 2,000 years old. 

What is interesting about mycelia is their symbiotic relationship with their environment.  The fungi’s fine filaments absorb nutrients from the soil, even breaking down rocks to extract minerals, and exchanges them for some of the energy that plants produce through photosynthesis.  The mycelium supporting a forest community will transmit this energy from one part of a forest to another to keep the ecosystem healthy; for example, from plants along a riverbank getting plenty of sunlight, to plants in the underbrush who need it.   They change literal stones into metaphorical bread for trees and other plants.   They even function to slowly metabolize the radioactive waste in Chernobyl into non-lethal materials, so that the surrounding ecosystem can heal and grow again.[4]

The realm of God is like mycelium: transforming death into life - willingly enduring what seems like the end of the world for the sake of a larger wholeness.  Mycelium have nodes of crossing as part of their “architecture,” branches that allow them to choose an alternative route to regrow when they experience breakage or an infection.  There is no single point in the mycelial network that can bring the whole thing down.  Destroy part of it, and it just keeps growing.  Life wants to live.

The realm of God is like fungi: underground, beneath the radar, relentlessly transforming death into life, sharing what is needful to maintain the common good, metabolizing the poison of our culture.  Our Temples crumble, but the mycelia keep on renewing the face of the earth.

This morning, we will baptize Virginia LeBlanc into the Body of Christ, into the realm of God: the newest fungus among us!  It is a kind of anticipatory “loss of innocence.”  It is an inoculation against the fascination with coercive power that brings death, that doesn’t last, so that she may become united with the creative power of God’s love that makes all things new.   In celebrating her new birth, we will all be renewed. Amen.

[1] Terrorist attacks left 43 people dead in Beirut and 129 people in Paris, with many still in critical condition.
[2] Mark 13:1-8.
[3] Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, & Michael Mills, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It,” (Night Garden Music, 1987).
[4] Derrick Jensen, “Going Underground:  Paul Stamets On The Vast, Intelligent Network Beneath Our Feet,” The Sun (February 2008, Issue 386).

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